Contra Dancing vs. Square Dancing

Couple square dancing outdoors

Steve Mason / Getty Images

Contra dance, square dance... are they the same thing? There are some slight differences, but these two forms of dance do have some similarities. 

Contra Dance vs. Square Dance

Contra dancing and square dancing both originated from the same basic roots, both drawing some of their fundamental elements from traditional folk dancing. Contra dancing and square dancing are both group-oriented dances, designed to be enjoyed by several people at once. The goal of both types of dances for the groups to complete a series of figures set to music.

Contra dance is a folk dance where lines of couples participate. It incorporates English country dances with Scottish and French dance styles from the 17th century but it also has influences of African dance and the Appalachian Mountain region of the U.S. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, as it is popular in the United Kingdom and North America. Contra dance includes everything from Irish tunes to French-Canadian folk tunes; the music almost always features a fiddle, but banjo and bass can be included. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance. They are popular in the United Kingdom and North America. In those areas, regular dance events are common. 

Square dancing involves eight dancers put into four couples arranged in a square. They seemed to have been first documented in England during the 17th century but were popular in other European countries including France. Square dance is also known as folk dance, but is largely associated with the United States; in fact, 19 states refer to it as their official state dance. 

Distinguishing Square Dance from Contra Dance

Contra dancing and square dancing share many of the same basic steps, including swings, promenades, do-si-dos, and allemandes. As mentioned, there are some differences between the types of dancing. A square dance set comprises only four couples while the number of couples participating in a contra dance set is unlimited (usually determined by the length of the dance hall).

During a square dance, the participants are prompted or cued through a sequence of steps throughout the entire set. In contra dancing, however, the caller uses choreographed dances. The caller explains the steps, walking the dancers through the sequence before beginning the dance. The dancers begin to remember the sequences after running through them a few times, requiring less direction from the caller. Contra dancers claim they are able to concentrate less on the caller, enabling them to listen and enjoy the music more than in square dance.

In square dancing, it is almost always set to live music. It can also be set to music from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and incorporate instruments such as the saxophone, drums, and electric guitars. Modern square dance can be performed to just about any tunes, including songs from the techno and hip-hop genres.